A class 12 student from Manipur needed money for an outing with his friends, so he decided to approach a woman who had offered him Rs 1000 per “soap case” if he smuggled it successfully from Myanmar. With his Myanmarese acquaintance he managed to smuggle about 50 such cases of drugs in a single attempt. Earning Rs 50,000 was easy, he thought. He tried it again but this time he was caught by the men of Assam rifles.
Actual picture of soap cases with drugs, seized during a raid in Assam
They are many such young Manipuri courier boys and girls who smuggle drugs in and out of Myanmar which is the world’s 2nd largest opium producer. Interestingly, a report published by United States (US) Department of Justice says that most of the drug trafficking in Myanmar and the famous Golden triangle (which includes Myanmar, Laos and Thailand) has the involvement of Chinese nationals. The entrepreneurs of Chinese descent remain active in drug manufacturing and distributing activities in Southeast Asia.
In December last year, Assam Rifles carried out a raid in which they seized drugs worth Rs 500 crores in international market, from a house in Manipur. The woman who owned the house lived in Mandalay (Myanmar) and was married to a Chinese national. This is not a mere coincidence.
The Indian soldiers guarding the borders in the North-East of India reinforce that with a collapsing administration in Myanmar, the leviathan of drug trafficking is growing each day. India is now waging a silent war on drugs.
How bad is the situation in Northeast?
Whilst Assam Rifles stumbled upon Rs 500 crores worth drugs in a single raid in Manipur, the Guwahati police arrested at least 126 people in its operations against drug menace, and seized heroin, cocaine and brown sugar valued at more than Rs 21 crore, within just one month. Later the Election Commission of India (ECI) confirmed that the 2022 election has seen “record seizures” of illicit drugs, alcohol and contraband material.
Drug trafficking is a social menace where those who are involved in the network have no choice but to get addicted to the substance they smuggle. Authorities confirm that at times smugglers use small kids as young as 5-6 years old as couriers to circumvent detection. The fact is—a soldier who catches a kid younger than 10 carrying a few “soap cases” will out of sympathy do not take any action against them.
Those who have been involved in actively stifling drug trafficking network also describe seeing hills full of opium in the thick forests of Manipur. The raiding parties, which often involves a joint team of Police and Assam Rifles, once ran out of batteries for their drones while capturing swathes of opium farms. How bad can it get?
The cartel carrying out nefarious activities across India-Myanmar border is rattled and reports confirm that the ambush on Col Viplav Tripathi’s convoy was an aftermath of the incessant raids by Assam Rifles and Police to whittle down the drug trafficking network in Northeastern part of India.
Some reports say that young students who go to the remote hills and help in cutting the flower saps and extracting opium earn as much Rs 500 to Rs 1000 per day. To a poppy farmer it’s just a 60-day harvest cycle. Some say –if farmers grow fruits and vegetables, they make Rs 2 lakh a year. When they grow poppy, they make Rs 10 lakhs.
A region which until recently had a poor road network and infra, was bound to fall into the rabbit hole of narcotics smuggling.
Poppy Plantation being destroyed at Chandel, Credit: EPao.net
The Network and its China Connection
According to NY Times in late 2018, President Trump brought up the subject of drug smuggling in his discussions with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. Reports say Chinese manufacturers have been responsible for many of the precursor materials needed to synthesize the drug smuggled from the Golden triangle. The Chinese Government acted pronto after Trump’s meeting, as inaction could have soured their trade relationship with America.
The drug syndicates moved into Myanmar where the government was dysfunctional, and they faced a limited control. The added advantage was—that despite changing base they still had easy access to the chemicals from China. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Southeast Asia confirms Shan State in Myanmar as the perfect base for such activities.
Drugs produced in the ‘Golden Triangle’ (Myanmar-Laos-Thailand), makes its way into India through Mizoram, Manipur, and Nagaland from Bhamo, Lashio, and Mandalay in Myanmar.
Moreh (Manipur), Champai (Mizoram), Dimapur (Nagaland), and Guwahati (Assam) have become the nucleus of drug trafficking industry in India’s northeast. The usual route followed to transport drugs outside Manipur is via roads from Imphal to Dimapur (NH-2) or Imphal to Jiribam (NH-37). When this hurdle is crossed the narcotics items reach Dimapur, from where the drug syndicate has the option to opt for rail route or road to supply it to other destinations.
Exactly a year ago an inter-state drug cartel was busted by the Delhi Police when they caught drugs worth Rs 30 crore, hidden in the rice bags coming from Manipur.
Till a few years ago drugs seized in Northeast, were mostly trafficked from the (in)famous golden triangle countries but now, drugs are manufactured in Manipur itself in small makeshift labs. The land-locked state of Manipur is not new to poppy cultivation and drugs. The state has a 398 Km long porous and forested border with Myanmar which facilitates smuggling.
Within Myanmar, Shan State has long been a centre of conflict and illicit drug production. The profit from drug production and smuggling is so high that it overshadows the formal sector of Shan State and has become the centre of its economy. This business thrives on the proximity of Shan State to supplies of precursors from across the Chinese border.
Credit: Crisis Group
Precursor are the chemicals needed for drug production. These chemicals can be brought in from China, where they are readily available through legitimate pharmaceutical and chemical markets and from illicit precursor-producing factories.
According to Australian Federal Police – “Most major drug manufacturing and trafficking activities in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the Pacific region are linked to Chinese criminals”.
What is being done?
With a well-established cross border nexus, it’s not easy to whittle down the narcotics business, yet the Government is experimenting with different strategies. The para-military force, Assam Rifles, has now been given additional police powers to check this menace and fight it on a priority, given the increase in drug trafficking in last few months.
Now the Indian government has empowered the Assam Rifles with two provisions of the country’s Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985.
Section 42 of the NDPS Act authorizes officers of Assam Rifles now to ” search the premises, seizure of the drugs, detain any person or arrest the person who has committed the offence without a warrant.”
Section 67 of the NDPS Act gives the power to “the officer mentioned under section 42 to examine any person or record the statement.”
Manipur government confirms that now satellites are being used to detect poppy farming in the hills of Manipur. Also, horticulture and soil preservation are being encouraged. Govt is providing saplings of high value and nutritional crops as an alternative to poppy plantation.